By Rosalind S. Helderman and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 7, 2006
RICHMOND -- Even for the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest legislature in the Western Hemisphere, May 7 is a landmark date in political frustration.
The Old Dominion set up its modern legislative calendar so that the 140 members of the House of Delegates and Senate could agree every two years on how much the state should spend. Twice in a row, they have failed to do that in the allotted 60 days.
On May 7, 2004, the legislators finally settled their first extended stalemate over tax increases. This May 7, as the assembly grapples with a similar dispute that began in winter and rolled into spring, there is no end in sight.
After the General Assembly convened Jan. 11, the two Republican-controlled chambers became embroiled in a fight over whether to raise taxes to improve the state's transportation network. As the days got longer and trees bloomed, the two were unable to compromise. The July 1 deadline for adopting a budget or risking a government shutdown is just over the horizon.
What has made the year all the more puzzling to politicians and political observers is how slowly lawmakers have been moving to try to resolve the issues that divide them. Faced with a complex debate that has failed to elicit widespread public interest, neither the House nor the Senate met in full last week.
"We have certainly had finer hours than this one," said Sen. Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pittsylvania), who is sponsoring a Senate bill to raise about $750 million for transportation.
Some politicians say that as long as the General Assembly remains divided over the core functions of government, legislative sessions will look more like 2004 and 2006 than the on-time performances that the legislature was known for in the 20th century.
"Washington-style politics is bleeding across the Potomac," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The partisan political posturing has debilitated our ability to govern. . . . The problems we're facing today are no bigger than the problems we've faced in Virginia's history."
Virginia General Assembly members are accustomed to controversy. They trace their heritage through the House of Burgesses and back to the Jamestown settlement. On a spring day more than two centuries ago, their political forebears heard a fellow legislator demand liberty or death in response to government arrogance. But modern Virginia is also famously proud of its traditions of well-managed government.
Two years ago, the assembly's desire to preserve Virginia's AAA bond rating as an emblem of responsible government helped cool political passions. Finally, 17 Republican delegates bucked their House leadership and joined with then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and the Senate to support higher taxes to finance such services as education and public safety.
The contours of that revolt were clear by April, and on Friday, May 7, 2004, the two sides at last passed a budget after 115 days. The dull thump of the General Assembly gavels closed what had been considered a particularly historic and uniquely intractable fight.
Until this year.
As they crash through the anniversary of the 2004 settlement, the two sides are still in search of a resolution. The Senate and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) believe the state's transportation network needs about $1 billion in new funding every year. Without it, they say, increasingly traffic-clogged roads will put in jeopardy the state's booming economy and residents' quality of life. Republicans in the House, however, maintain that there is no need for a tax increase while the state budget is running a surplus.
This fight has dragged on because there are few strong incentives to make a deal. The prospect of better roads and railways in 2006 does not elicit the dramatic emotional response that the specter of pink slips for teachers did in 2004.
A rain-soaked February rally by those opposed to raising taxes drew a small crowd. So too did an April lobby day organized by Kaine's political action committee, designed to give ordinary commuters a chance to voice their anger. Although transportation advocates say they have gotten concerned Virginians to send e-mails and letters to lawmakers, the campaign lacks the potent images of two years ago, when angry Virginians showed up at town hall-style meetings to tell lawmakers to pass a budget.
"One of the most exasperating parts of this phenomenon to me has been the lack of engagement by the public," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania). "Schoolchildren, nursing home recipients, battered domestic partners, all those have faces. Transportation really doesn't have a face."
The Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia have some of the worst traffic jams in the country. But for many Northern Virginians, the state budget and the General Assembly are abstractions. People are passionate on one thing: They want someone, something, to free up enough space on the roads to make their commutes bearable.
"Maybe [the legislators] should be talking to the people who are driving these routes," Luis Alzugaray said Friday. "Maybe they should stop talking and come up here and drive themselves."
Sandra Tirbany, a social work student at George Mason University, works full time at a clothing store in Tysons Corner, and her five-mile commute from Springfield can take more than 30 minutes. "I feel like they [in Richmond] could do something," Tirbany said.
But she doesn't believe she should pay higher taxes for relief. "We're having to suffer with all the traffic problems, and our taxes keep going up," she said.
A Senate transportation hearing in Falls Church on Thursday night brought out a few concerned residents, along with policymakers and lobbyists. Ed Burrell, a retired accountant from Leesburg, was among them. He said he would gladly pay more so he and his daughter and son-in-law could get around more quickly.
"They're being kind of stubborn about it," Burrell said of House Republicans. "The Senate is much more bipartisan and focused on the problem. Most of us are willing to pay a little extra to get this going."
House leaders have yearned to show that this year they have the unity to wait out the Senate. And like generals still fighting the last war, senators have been counting on the House Republican caucus to crack again. That hasn't happened.
"Our guys are unified this year," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said.
Kaine, at least publicly, has kept his hands off the legislature.
"This is a negotiation between two Republican bodies of the legislature," he said Thursday.
Referring to changes he made to the former Democratic governor Mark R. Warner's budget, Kaine said: "I proposed a series of amendments that made this budget a very strong budget. These guys have been at it for more than 100 days, and nothing they've done has made it any better. That doesn't send a good message to the citizens."
Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, one of the groups that has tried to pressure lawmakers to pass a robust road and rails plan, said the public would pay a price if the assembly failed to deliver. Howell, however, warned that if the Senate gets its way, Virginians could pay more for gasoline, home sales and cars.
Although local governments depend on money that flows through the state budget, the gap between the House and Senate proposals largely involves transportation spending. Unlike 2004, there are no teachers and no sheriff's deputies whose jobs hinge on the General Assembly adopting a budget.
"Is one ounce of service that Virginia provides in jeopardy? No," said Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "If you get a state retirement check, it won't stop. The state police will be on the highway. I don't see this as a big problem."
Kaine said the public might be suffering from a sort of gridlock fatigue, convinced that lawmakers will resolve their dispute somehow, after watching similar fights in the past.
"I think the first time they're like: 'Wow, what will happen?' And the second time: 'Well, what's gonna happen?' And by the third time, the people just feel like: 'They'll get their act together and do something.' "
Staff writer Lisa Rein contributed to this report.